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The Thief on the Cross

Paul Wong

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The example of the thief's conversion on the cross is often used as a basis for teaching baptism is not essential for salvation.  What they assert is that the thief was not baptized and yet the Lord Jesus Christ promised him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43)   There can be no doubt concerning the salvation of the thief on the cross, but using this case as a standard pattern for all Christians in the New Testament time is highly questionable at best, and completely erroneous at worst.  There are several reasons why the thief was saved without water baptism while he was crucified next to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Let us study the circumstances in which the thief was saved.

 

1.    The thief could have already been baptized before being nailed to the Cross

 

       Water baptism was administered by John the Baptist during the thief’s lifetime. “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.  And all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” (Mk. 1:4-5)  The baptism of John effects the “remission of sins” and that is salvation from sin.

There are good reasons to believe the thief may well have been baptized before being nailed to the cross.  Let us read the narrative on Luke chapter 23.

 

32     There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death.

33     And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.

34     Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots.

35     And the people stood looking on. But even the rulers with them sneered, saying, "He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ, the chosen of God."

36     The soldiers also mocked Him, coming and offering Him sour wine,

37     and saying, "If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself."

38     And an inscription also was written over Him in letters of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

39     Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ  save Yourself and us."

40     But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?

41     And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong."

42     Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."

43     And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise ."

 

According to Luke’s narrative both criminals did not hear or learn any truths concerning Jesus Christ when they were crucified with Him. They would have difficulty reading the inscription  "KING OF THE JEWS"   because it was placed above the head of the Lord. One of the criminals did not believe in God but the other criminal indicated he not only believed in God but also feared Him as well (Lk. 23:40).  This second criminal must have been a believer in God at some time of his past life, but committed a crime and was sentenced to death by crucifixion.

 

This penitent thief not only had a good sense of morality to distinguish between right from wrong, but he also knew that Jesus “has done nothing wrong." (Lk. 23:41)  He knew Jesus was without sin or guilt. How did he know that?  Only by knowing Jesus earlier could he have known that!

 

He called Jesus “Lord” and also acknowledged Him as the King and He has a “Kingdom.” (Lk. 23:42)  Why would he call someone who was dying on a cross Lord?  He had to have known Jesus before they were nailed to those crosses!

 

In verse 42 the thief said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."  How did he know that Jesus was going to His kingdom when He died?  He could only have known that if he had been a disciple of Jesus' prior to being on the cross.  He had to have heard the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God!

 

The thief believed that even though Jesus was dying on the cross, he would still be a King. How can someone dying be expected to become a king? The thief understood that after Jesus' death on the Cross His Kingdom would be established.  How could he have either known or believed these things if he did not know Jesus before they were nailed to the cross?

 

The biblical evidence indicates at that time the only persons who were preaching the Kingdom of God were John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 3:1-2; Mk 1:14-15).  The thief knew Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah and Son of the living God.  He knew Jesus before being nailed to the cross.  He must have either been a disciple of Jesus Christ or John the Baptist.  If he was indeed a disciple then in all probability he could have been baptized for the remission of sins.

 

 

The Promise given directly to

the Thief cannot be repeated

 

We cannot be certain or dogmatic on whether or not the thief on the cross has been baptized.  In any case we cannot take the situation of the thief as a typical example to prove that baptism is not essential for salvation.  It is not a typical case but a unique and exceptional case that cannot be repeated.  In order to receive the same condition of salvation as the thief on the cross one has to receive a similar promise directly from the Lord Jesus Christ.  That incident occurred two thousand years ago and there is no possible way for it to be repeated since our Lord Jesus Christ died only once and for all.

 

 

2.    The thief was crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ and also believed in Him

 

“There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death.  And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.”   (Lk. 23:32-33)

 

Two criminals were crucified together with the Lord Jesus Christ and only one of them believed in Him.  The criminal who was crucified with Jesus and believed in Him was saved, but the other criminal who did not believe in Jesus was condemned.

 

Throughout the history of mankind, from the time of Adam until the end of the world, there is only one person who has ever been crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ and believed in Him, and that person is the thief on the cross.  That was a one time historic event and it can never be repeated.  No one else can ever be crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ again.  The only way in which a believer can be crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Him

 

Water baptism is to be crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ and to die with Him.  “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.  For he who has died has been freed from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.” (Rom. 6:5-8)

 

 

When Jesus was crucified on the cross

He was bearing the sins of the world.

 

“. . . who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness – by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24) 

 

“Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." And they divided His garments and cast lots.” (Lk. 23:34)

 

Forgiveness of sins was granted to both criminals and also to every one who had come to the cross on Calvary Hill on that historic day.  The criminal who had confessed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repented of his sins was saved while the other criminal who did not believe in Christ and neither did he repented of his sins was condemned.

 

The atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ who bore the sins of the world on His own body during those few hours cannot be repeated ever again.  After the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ a person’s sins are remitted by repentance and baptism into the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38).

 

"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."  Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.   For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call."  And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” (Acts 2:36-41)

 

What Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost concerning repentance and baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" is God's universal way of salvation for mankind, whereas the promise of salvation given by the Lord Jesus Christ to the thief on the Cross personally face to face is a very extreme, exceptional and unique case, therefore it cannot be taken as an example to teach that water baptism is not essential for salvation. 

 

Biblical  Evidences  that

Water  Baptism  affects  Salvation

 

The situation of the thief on the cross cannot be used to establish a doctrine that water baptism is not essential for salvation because of the following reasons. 

 

1.      The thief on the cross might have been baptized, since John the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus Christ have been administering water baptism during his lifetime (John 4:1–2).

 

2.      The thief was crucified with the Lord Jesus Christ and also believed in Him.  Water baptism represents the believer’s identification with the death, burial and resurrection with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-8).

 

3.      The Lord Jesus Christ forgave the thief on the Cross who also confessed his sins.

 

The Holy Bible gives us very clearcut evidences that water baptism is essential for salvation.

 

               "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." (Mk. 16:16)

               "Baptism also now saves us. . ." (1 Pet. 3:20-21).

               "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirir." (Acts 2:38)

               "Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).

               "Buried with Christ through baptism into death. . . our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.  For he who as died has been freed from sin." (Rom. 6:3-8)

 

God’s  Salvation  in  Extreme

and  Exceptional  Cases

 

Some teach the thief on the Cross was living under the dispensation of the Old Testament because the Lord Jesus Christ had not died, buried or resurrected, therefore water baptism was not in effect at that time.  This is not true.  Although the New Testament had not begun but John the Baptist had administered the Baptism of Repentance for the remission of sins (Mk. 1:4-5).  John’s baptism was approved by God and is “the counsel of God” (Mt. 21:25-27; Lk. 7:28-30).  Even the Lord Jesus Christ was baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt. 3:13-17)  The disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ had received John’s Baptism of Repentance for the remission of sins (Acts 1:5).  It must be emphasized that John’s Baptism of Repentance was replaced by the  Baptism into the Lord Jesus Christ  (Acts 19:1-7) 

 

There is much biblical evidence that indicates the thief on the Cross might have already received John’s Baptism of Repentance for the remission of sins.  Let us assume the thief had not received any baptism, but even if he wanted to be baptized he could not receive it because he was nailed to the cross.  The fact remains that under such an extreme circumstance in which the thief could not be baptized, the Lord Jesus Christ extended to him love, mercy and grace by this promise, “Assuredly, I say to you, to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43)  Only the Lord Jesus Christ who is our God and Savior can grant this special privilege of salvation to the thief on the cross. 

 

The situation of the thief on the cross may be an example of what God will do for people who spent the last hours of their lives on earth to repent of their sins and surrender their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ.  

 

Such people may be suffering from a terminal illness on the death bed of an Intensive Care Unit in a hospital.  They may be prisoners on the death row about to be executed and who repent and confess their sins and beg the Lord Jesus Christ for His mercy and forgiveness. 

 

There is a common saying that there are no atheists in the foxholes.  Soldiers under heavy enemy fire on the battlefield and expect to die at any moment often cry out to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.

 

God can and will save souls when passengers in a sinking ship or in an airplane that is about to crash.  “For whoever calls upon the name of the LORD shall be saved.” (Rom. 11:13)

 

It is impossible for people in such extreme and extraordinary situations and circumstances to receive the ordinary things of the Christian life such as water baptism and other sacraments.

 

The One True God is very fair and just.  He will show His love, mercy and grace to such people who repent and place their lives in His hands.  But the situation of the thief on the cross does not provide a model for the ordinary course of affairs.

 

Today, under normal circumstances where there is absolutely no barrier or obstacle to prevent a baptism from being administered, no one should refuse to be baptized or teach there is no need for baptism because it is not essential for salvation. 

 

The principle is not that exceptional cases prove nothing.  They do teach us about what God may do in exceptional circumstances. "Exceptional cases may not show the ordinary, but they show the possible."

 

 

Many  souls  were  saved

as  the  Titanic  was  sinking

 

As the luxury liner Titanic began sinking, slowly at first, the captain ordered the band to play to keep up the spirits of the passengers. It began playing a rag-time tune, but soon was playing hymns.

 

There were only twenty lifeboats on the huge ocean liner-- barely enough for one-third of the passengers and crew.  Not all of them could be lowered.  All 85 engineers continued to work to keep the ship afloat as long as possible.

 

Throughout the mournful, evacuation, with loved ones being tearfully separated, the band continued to play. There is some dispute about what was played that night. Several people in the life boats heard "Nearer My God to Thee."

 

At the end many people knelt together in prayer until the waters covered them.  They were praying the Lord’s Prayer –

 

“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.  Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. . . . . For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” (Mt. 6:9-13)

 

One of the passengers traveling on the ship was evangelist John Harper. He put his six-year old daughter into a life boat and then ran through the ship warning others of the danger and talking to them about the eternal destiny of their souls.  When he was finally forced to jump into the icy water, he clung to a piece of wreckage and asked another man "Are you saved?"  When the man answered no, John said to him, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."  (Acts 16:31)

 

When the Titanic sank early in the morning of April 15, 1912 John Harper was among the 1,522 people who died. The band went down with the ship. The last hymn they played was "Autumn," which concludes with this prayer

 

Hold me up in mighty waters

Keep my eyes on things above,

Righteousness, divine Atonement,

Peace, and everlasting Love.

 

 

The Heroism and Salvation of

Christians on United Airlines Flight #93

 

United Airlines Flight 93 was a flight that regularly flew from Newark International Airport in Newark, New Jersey to San Francisco International Airport.  On September 11, 2001, the aircraft on the flight was one of the four planes hijacked as part of the  terrorist attack. It was the only one of the four planes that did not reach its intended target, instead crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 150 miles northwest of Washington, DC. This was apparently because passengers, alerted through phone calls, attempted to subdue the hijackers. The hijackers are thought to have crashed the plane to keep the passengers from gaining control. It is believed that flight attendants Cee Cee Lyles and Sandra Bradshaw and passengers Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, Andrew Garcia, Jeremy Glick, and Richard Guadagno fought back against the hijackers. Other passengers probably participated also.

 

"I don't think we're going to get out of this thing.  I'm going to have to go out on faith." It was the voice of Todd Beamer, the passenger . . . and Wheaton College graduate . . . who said, "Let's roll" as he led the charge against the terrorists who had hijacked United Flight 93, the one that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.

 

The whole world knows how brave Beamer and his fellow passengers were on September 11th.  But we learned more fully what buttressed that bravery: Faith in Jesus Christ.  Todd died as he lived . . . a faithful evangelical believer.

 

In an article titled "The Real Story of Flight 93," Newsweek reveals gripping new details from the actual transcripts of the now-recovered cockpit voice recorder.

 

"Todd had been afraid," Newsweek relates.  "More than once, he cried out for his Savior."  After passengers were herded to the back of the jet, Beamer called the GTE Customer Center in Oakbrook, Illinois.  He told supervisor Lisa Jefferson about the hijacking.  The passengers were planning to jump the terrorists, he said.  And then he asked her to pray with him.

 

As Newsweek relates . . ."Beamer kept a Lord's Prayer bookmark in his Tom Clancy novel, but he didn't need any prompting. He began to recite the ancient litany, and Jefferson joined him:

 

Our Father which art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

'Give us this day our daily bread.

'And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not lead us into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory, forever,

Amen.”


As they finished, Beamer added, "Jesus, help me."  And then, Beamer and his fellow passengers prayed a prayer that has comforted millions down through the centuries . . . the prayer found in Psalms 23rd chapter that David wrote in a time of great anguish:

 

The Lord is my Shepherd,

I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me besides the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness

for His name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley

of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:

for Thou art with me;

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me

in the presence of mine enemies:

Thou annointest my head with oil;

my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall

follow me all the days of my life.

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

 

And then the famous last words: "Are you guys ready?  Let's roll."

 

We now know from the cockpit voice recorder that Beamer and other passengers wrestled with the hijackers and forced the plane to crash into the ground, killing themselves but foiling what was believed to have been the hijackers' plan to fly Flight 93 into the Capitol or the White House.

 

As Christians, we know that God can bring good out of evil.  In Todd Beamer, the world witnesses a faith that held up in the extremity of fear.  A faith that is even now comforting his widow and two young sons.

 

Lisa Beamer told NBC's Dateline, "You know, in the Lord's Prayer, it asks us to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

 

"As Todd prayed this prayer in the last moments of his life, in a way," Lisa said, "He was forgiving those people for what they were doing, the most horrible thing you could ever do to someone."

It wasn't Todd Beamer's job to fight terrorists. He was just a passenger, who along with several others, did what he didn't have to do but foiled a terrible evil that might have been done to his country.

 

As Flight 93 hurtled towards destruction, Todd Beamer could not have known that his quiet prayers would ultimately be heard by millions . . . that the story of his last acts on earth would be a witness to the Lord he loved and served as a lasting example of true heroism.

 

Just Remember what Christians can do for our nation!!!

 

Salvation of the flight attendant on American Airlines Flight #11

(The first plane to crash into the World Trade Center Towers)

 

A Christian by the name of Bill Faye spoke at a church on Sunday, September 9th, 2001.  He later returned to his home in Denver on Monday, September 10th.

 

During his American Airline flight he saw a flight attendant breaking up ice with a wine bottle. He got up from his seat and asked if there was a way in which she could break the ice more safely. He was afraid she would hurt herself. She was moved that he would be so concerned.

 

After a brief conversation, he gave her a Gospel tract to read when she had a spare moment. A short time later she found Bill and told him this was the sixth Gospel tract she had received from someone. "What does God want from me?" she asked. Bill responded, "Your life!"

 

A few minutes later, he was praying with her to accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.

 

After Tuesday’s terrible attack on America, Bill looked up the names of those on American Airlines Flight #11. This flight was the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center Towers. The flight attendant’s name was on the list. 

 

On Tuesday September 11, 2001 she entered into the eternal presence of her newly found Lord and Savior! She received the new birth of a born-again Christian just one day prior to her death.

As it’s been said, "To be born only once, you die twice (spiritually and physically). To be born twice (born-again), you only die once." Your soul lives on in heaven!  Because this flight attendant was born-again, she experienced only physical death and not spiritual.

 

May God bless you 

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This article is a presentation of Paul Wong

to the ARK Forum on November 19, 2005.

It was published on this Website on September 2, 2009

For comments please write first to: arkpw@sbcglobal.net

 

 
Paul Wong is a Christian minister and the President of ARK International.
His ministry also serves as an architectural service company in Houston.
The ARK Forum on the Internet is international and non-denominational
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